‘A Little Help': You Think Job Had Problems? Pity Poor Jenna Fischer

“Office” star shines in a dramedy that marks an impressive directorial debut for Michael Weithorn

Will the recent widow hook up with her brother-in-law? Or will she merely continue smoking pot in the back yard? And what about the frivolous lawsuit against the doctor who mistook her husband’s heart attack for arrhythmia? Will anyone see through that lie about her husband saving three people before dying on 9/11? And why won’t that damn dog next door stop barking?

These and other questions are answered in “A Little Help,” Michael Weithorn’s smart and funny new dramedy.

"The Office's" Jenna Fischer stars as Laura Pehlke, a Long Island dental hygienist whom we meet in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, whose marriage to Bob (Chris O’Donnell) is on the rocks.

A fatal heart attack solves her marital woes but opens a whole new set of problems, including severe cuts in income, a distraught 12-year-old son entering a new school and a newfound connection with her brother-in-law. 

Weithorn surrounds his lead character with the stresses of real life: Terror number one is her older sister (an overbearing Brooke Smith) who hectors her into a fraudulent malpractice suit, which sleazy attorney Mel Kaminsky (Kim Coates) takes to trial over Laura’s reluctance. Meanwhile, Laura’s mother Joan (Lesley Ann Warren) insists she send her son Dennis to a private school she thinks will bring order to his life.

In order to win favor in his new school, Dennis (a conflicted, funny and candid performance by Daniel Yelsky), tells everyone the lie about his father being a hero on 9/11. He pleads with Laura to back him up, which she agrees to do, a decision with disastrous results.

Underscoring all of this is the neighbor’s perpetually parking dog, a constant metaphoric reminder of the wolves at the door and the disobliging voices around Laura with their unsolicited mandates on what she should do.

Joan calls her daughter a “spoiled, self-indulgent teenager!” And yes, Laura gets high, drinks too much, and has a one-night stand, but these are not transgressions as much as they are surrogates — because a little help is exactly what Laura’s not getting from the people in her life.

First-time writer-director Weithorn’s astute and sensitive script swings effortlessly from humor to pathos, tonal shifts that his actors navigate with subtlety and grace. Fischer’s performance and Weithorn’s honest writing allow her room for irresponsible behavior that audiences might object to in another movie but which only emphasize her vulnerability here.

Weithorn built a career as showrunner on “Ned and Stacey” and “King of Queens,” but thankfully, “A Little Help” in no way resembles a TV drama. Instead, it offers three-dimensional characters with detailed personality traits and vibrant inner lives and Weithorn’s script deftly employs subtext, subtlety and empathy. As director, he elicits memorable and natural performances from each of his cast members no matter their age or experience.

Neither a sappy melodrama about a suburban housewife on the edge nor a manipulative bromide about the trials facing everyday people after 9/11, “A Little Help” instead offers us honest characters facing ordinary challenges in this auspicious debut feature.